Director: Ryan Coogler
Producers: Victoria Alonso, Jeffrey Chernov, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Stan Lee, David J. Grant, Nate Moore
Writers: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison
Editor: Debbie Berman, Michael P. Shawver
Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, John Kani, Andy Serkis, Letita Wright
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home of Wakanda after the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani). Wakanda is a technological marvel hidden in the heart of Africa, powered by a precious metal called vibranium. After going through the ritual ceremony to become the next king, T’Challa dons the persona of the Black Panther, a superhero figure of legend and myth. He sets out to find Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), one of the few outsiders to know of vibranium and a killer of the Wakandan people and bring him to justice, along with his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) and with the help of his sister, Shuri (Letita Wright). Little does he know though that a new enemy, the dangerous commando, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), lurks in the background and seeks to usurp the throne.
The Black Panther character was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1966. The first mainstream black superhero, the character was moderately successful during his initial run and bounced around with general comic’s popularity over the coming decades. In this age of superhero film mania, it’s surprising (disappointing) that a film starring a black lead has taken so long to get to the big screen (18 years since the first X-Men film though it’s important not to forget the “Blade” trilogy even though they never quite had the superhero budget treatment). With Ryan Coogler, after his success with “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”, and the Marvel movie machine behind the production, the hype for releasing the film was tremendous as it has become the highest grossing superhero film yet and the third-highest grossing film ever in the United States.
The film feels different than the other Marvel films in its single focus and intimacy. You don’t have Iron Man or Thor showing up for a comical cameo or a whole lot of universe building that sets up future films. T’Challa himself is a very serious character with no quipping, no clever lines and no camera winking. It’s a relatively simple story of a son atoning for the sins of his father and learning about the responsibilities of being a king. It’s a path Marvel should take more often.
The look and feel of the film is impressive, bringing a new culture to life that is both new and familiar. When the film lags or stutters from time to time, it is still never boring or uninteresting as the viewer is immersed in this new world, part sci-fi, part African tribe, part dream.
Many point to the film as Shakespearean, which is indeed the case with the relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger. The familial line and feuding brothers and a fight over the throne all add different dimensions to a film that tries desperately to break the Marvel mold. It elevates the story beyond just another fun time at the movies.
There are points when the film feels a bit aimless and trying to find its way as in a car chase sequence in South Korea or a bank robbery in London, almost as if such sequences were pushed on by the studio to make the film more action and adventure when it doesn’t really need it, but the dynamics of incorporating some James Bond-esque scenes are nevertheless intriguing. You can still ride the ride of the film and feel the power of the story. Taking root in mythology and family gives the movie added emotional weight and featuring the “black experience” in today’s world makes the film timely.
What matters most from a cultural standpoint is what Black Panther represents. Much like “Wonder Woman” last year, seeing a different type of superhero (not a straight, white male) is inspiring. What he represents is in some ways more important than who he is. The film does a good job of balancing that expectation of illustrating the image of a black superhero without playing it up for selfish reasons. Add to that the representation of strong female characters who fight alongside him and serve as his preeminent bodyguards and you have a fully diversified film, still a rarity from Hollywood.
- Inciting Incident: T’Challa returns home to be crowned king.
- Act One Climax: T’Challa decides to find Ulysses and bring him back to Wakanda for justice, his first act as king.
- Midpoint: KIllmonger defeats Black Panther and throws him over the waterfall’s edge.
- Act Two Climax: After rising from the dead, Black Panther concocts a plan to take down Killmonger using the help of his sister and loyal subjects.
- Act Three Climax: T’Challa retakes the throne and decides to share Wakanda’s technology with the world.
An argument can be made that Killmonger is a more interesting character than T’Challa. His position that the world has turned its back on those of African heritage and they must seek to overthrow the world is interesting. The betrayal of T’Chaka against Killmonger’s father adds further fuel to his anger and gives him empathy. His role could have been expanded more and truly represented the repressed African spirit. Perhaps we see glimpses of his youth and the hardships he endured. Perhaps he comes to Wakanda and presents them pictures of the slums of LA and Washington, DC, showing how the colonizers are still abusing Africans and how the Wakandans have turned their backs on their own people. This would have really elevated the film more as an ethical examination. The film nearly breaks free of the superhero genre in the way that “The Dark Knight” and “Logan” have before, but doesn’t quite get there.
T’Challa is a strong character, but a little too perfect. He has no inner challenges in regards to character. Perhaps if he was fearful of the throne and the burden it will bring to him. Perhaps if he failed in a more dramatic fashion than his inability to capture Ulysses and the tribes grumbled about his lack of leadership. Maybe he considers letting Killmonger have the throne as it has brought him nothing but misery. Such plot points are hinted at in the film, but could have been enhanced even more.
Another thing missing is a representative character of the Wakandan people, someone who witnesses the events of the plot as a spectator. Perhaps T’Challa meets a young child on his first stroll through the city as king and talks to him, encouraging him to be a doctor or engineer like his sister and reminding him not to fight with his siblings as peace is the way. As the battle over the throne commences, we see the conflict among the common people through his eyes as different families take Killmonger or T’Challa’s side and conflict erupts on the street. The boy sees peace as the way and forms a group that refuses to go along with Killmonger’s war plans, bringing the people to T’Challa’s side as the final battle begins.
Wakanda is a dream representation of an African utopia, a place of beauty, innovation and peace, a black Camelot in a way. It represents a world that could have been were it not for colonization, racism and genocide and all the negative forces of the globe. Seeing that representation is a hope for all peoples, not just Africans, but everyone who believes in an ideal world full of culture and peace. The film does an admirable job of creating a world that many dream of and hope to create. For so long, Camelot was a place of Anglo-Saxons, but seeing a new type of El Dorado and Atlantis onscreen is important. That will ultimately be “Black Panther’s” legacy. The final shot of the film, an impressive T’Challa in his regal robes and spaceship next to a young boy playing basketball, is an uplifting image of hope.